Call it a case of offensive complacency. As the Boston Celtics have improved their scoring efficiency over the past month, there has been an inverse effect on the team's defense. Some of that erosion went masked by Boston's gaudy offensive output, and Celtics coach Brad Stevens has implored his team to reaffirm the defensive commitment that delivered Boston to its spot in the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket.
The Celtics dropped their second contest on a three-game road trip on Monday night in Minneapolis. Timberwolves rookie center Karl-Anthony Towns feasted on Boston's interior defense while putting up 28 points and 13 rebounds. Boston nearly stole a win in the final moments, but Marcus Smart's 3-point attempt at the buzzer came up short in a 124-122 defeat.
Some will lament the fact that Isaiah Thomas appeared wide open on the other side of the court when Smart elected to pull up for a defended 3-pointer with little more than 2 seconds to play in a two-point game. Alas, nothing about the previous 47:58 suggested that one shot decided this game.
No, the Celtics finished with a defensive rating -- points allowed per 100 possessions -- of 120.9. How bad is that? It's 20.8 points worse than Boston's season average and 11.9 points worse than the Los Angeles Lakers' league-worst mark for the season.
Maybe this will hammer it home even more: Boston ranked second in the league in defensive rating on Feb. 9 at 99.2. Just 13 days later -- and Boston had eight of those days off for the All-Star break -- the team has slipped to fifth in the league at 100.1.
When Stevens was asked Sunday if the defense had slipped a little, he responded, "I think it’s more than a little. I just think we have to be much better into the ball. Listen, we’re small, and that’s something we have to make up for with presence and impacting the ball.
"If we’re going to be a good basketball team, we have to defend; we’ve talked about that. And we have to defend with more presence."
Last week, we spotlighted how the Celtics built what had been a top-three defense. Even without much pure size and rim protection, Boston has leaned on its versatility to make things difficult on opposing teams. The Celtics have encountered trouble with long, athletic opponents -- as Minnesota showcased on Monday night -- but the defensive erosion is still a bit baffling for a team that pledged to make defense its identity.
What has to be frustrating for Stevens is that it's also a consistency issue. On Sunday in Denver, the Celtics seemed committed to the defensive end and had one of their best efforts in a while in a quality win over the Nuggets. Boston evidently forgot to pack that defensive intensity for the trip to Minnesota.
The Celtics have had two primary trouble areas when their defense has struggled: fouling and defensive rebounding. Boston ranks last in the league with an opponent free throw attempt rate -- the number of free throws a team attempts in comparison to its total field goal attempts -- at 0.326. (Boston's opponents also attempt a league-high 27.5 free throws per game.) The Celtics rank 25th in defensive rebound rate (74.6), which suggests that teams are consistently generating second-chance opportunities. (Boston is 27th in the league in second-chance points allowed at 14.3 per game.)
Stevens said that Boston having the right defensive purpose starts with the point of attack.
"I think the biggest thing is that you’re, No. 1, you have an impact on the ball, but you’re solid," said Stevens. "So you pressure as much as you can, but you’re still able to contain the dribble. You hold your ground, you show your hands, you do all those little things that end up winning. I thought [last week in Utah] when we started playing with presence, we started fouling. So you have to be able to do both. And you have to be able to do both well. And, for the most part, we have this year.
"That’s why we’re sitting where we are. But we better be a lot better than we’ve been over the last couple of weeks if we want to continue to have a chance to win."
With Monday's loss in Minneapolis, the Celtics slipped back to fourth in the East, leapfrogged by a Miami team that beat Indiana in overtime. (The Heat visit the Celtics for a head-to-head matchup on Saturday.) ESPN's Basketball Power Index projected Boston with a greater than 50 percent chance at landing the No. 3 seed in the East entering Monday's action, based on performance and schedule to this point.
While the Celtics have maintained that their goal is to simply earn home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs -- something a top-four spot would secure -- this team knows full well that a primary goal should be avoiding the Cleveland Cavaliers as long as possible. Boston boldly surged to the No. 7 seed last season before getting swept by Cleveland in the opening round of the playoffs. With the Cavaliers owning a comfortable cushion on the No. 1 seed in the East, it might be in Boston's best interest to land the No. 2 or 3 seed to ensure it wouldn't see the Cavaliers until the Eastern Conference finals.
Alas, the Celtics can't be overly concerned with the big picture at the moment. The team's focus should be on the next game and recalibrating a defense that will almost certainly dictate just how the rest of the season will play out. The offensive production has been excellent, but it can't come at the expense of the defense.
"You get caught up in trying to outscore teams," said Celtics guard Avery Bradley. "Maybe that is what can happen. Everything is going well in the offensive end and you forget to play defense. That’s where we have to hold each other accountable."